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What Divides Turkey And The EU Goes Deeper Than Politics

Sunset over Istanbul
Sunset over Istanbul
Nuray Mert


ISTANBUL — Over the years, as Turkey's European Union membership process stalled, I have seen plenty of blame on both sides. Ultimately, I never believed Turkey would become a full EU member, as the process was full of insincerity from both Ankara and Brussels. Now, it is over.

In all these years, I never criticized the EU membership process out of some nationalistic impulse. But I do believe that the goals of democracy, rights and freedom cannot be achieved by way of foreign pressure.

I also believe that the EU is not merely a union of political principles, and requires a minimum level of cultural proximity. I still believe this is true. I am not among the Turks who believe that somehow "democracy is alien to our culture." What I mean by cultural proximity is based around the way our daily lives are lived. France may be the most secular example of the West, just as Turkey is of the East — but one has Christmas and Easter and the other has Ramadan and Eid as official national holidays.

We never had time to discuss these things thoroughly. We could not, because the pro-EU camp in Turkey was labeling anybody with the slightest objection as an "ultra-nationalist," while the Islamist camp was clinging tight to the EU as a way to eliminate the hold of ultra-secular Kemalism.

Now, the issue is seen through new lenses. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had managed to eliminate Kemalism and the hold of Turkey's Ataturk foundation, so it no longer needs the backing of the EU. At the same time, Europe viewing Turkey as an "Islamic Democracy" is over, while our Islamists fell out of love with the EU.

We should also note that the same Islamists fell out of love with values such as democracy, human rights and freedoms as well. Since "freedom to wear a headscarf" and "human rights to practice one's religion" were now guaranteed by their government — providing similar rights to the rest of the people did not fit to their plans.

Ties that bind

Recently, the EU has suddenly stopped ignoring the threat of authoritarianism in Turkey. But in the end, the discussion of who is right is overshadowed by the bald insincerity of each side. This doesn't, of course, mean that we shouldn't be asking what will come of the relationship between Turkey and Europe. Even if Ankara never becomes a full member of the EU, it has serious political and economic ties with the continent. Cutting these ties would be the wrong path to take. And this goes beyond diplomacy or even foreign business opportunities: in the end, it is about what kind of leadership Turkey will have at home as well.

We see the attitude of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling establishment towards the West and the EU. They do not consider the values of democracy and freedoms as universal but rather cultural. And, it may be, that the cultural values of the West don't fit with ours. This means we will eat our yogurt in our own way, as the Turkish saying goes. At the root of democracy is the goal of encouraging different groups to peacefully coexist and securing the rights of individuals.

Is the real reason for the current standoff with the EU their approach to the Kurdish issue, their support of "terrorism"? Who would have intervened on this issue if we could have handled it on our own? We saw this problem with the secularist regime of the past, as we see it with Islamists today.

Both secular nationalists and political Islamists camps have always kept their distance from true democratic politics and the values on which it is built. The diffidence to these values clashes with their own respective claims to legitimacy via the "voting ballot" and "national will." Why are these concepts not "alien" or somehow "Western values' and the others are not? They have no good response because the starting point is always a yearning to run an authoritarian regime. Indeed, we have seen that in the West as well. So we can rightfully say that the EU cannot impose democracy on Turkey. But we also know that democracy will be totally lost by cutting ties with the EU. It is the proof that the Turkish ruling party's fight with the EU is actually a fight against Western values themselves.

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